Saturday, March 29, 2008

New Chevy Tahoe Hybrid

It promises a better way of doing things. It just may help save the earth. And you can dress it up any way you want.

Wonderful qualities, you say? In a hybrid truck?

"Certainly in the full-size truck area, you can make a general statement that accessorization is very important to buyers. On the hybrid side, it's hard to say," said Brian Goebel, a spokesman for General Motors, whose Chevy Tahoe Hybrid is arriving in dealerships now.

The Tahoe Hybrid, which promises up to 21 miles per gallon in city driving - 50 percent better than the conventional Tahoe - was named SEMA's most accessory friendly hybrid last fall. SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association, represents companies that build aftermarket products and names a "most accessory friendly" vehicle each year in four categories.

As hybrid truck offerings begin to proliferate, most experts, including those from SEMA and GM, acknowledge that buyers are primarily looking to improve their mileage. But, while accessorization is no more important to buyers of trucks as any other hybrid, it may be no less important for hybrids than any other truck.

"Personalization is experiencing such a groundswell among consumers that it plays an increasingly important role in every category," said Peter MacGillivray, SEMA vice president of events and communications. "Everybody, every type of consumer, is talking about ways they can make their vehicle fit them like a glove."

Be that as it may, J.D. Power analyst Mike Omotoso said the purchase of any hybrid boils down to more practical concerns.

"The two main reasons are fuel economy, No. 1, and the image of being environmentally conscious," said Omotoso, director of global powertrain at the research firm.

Lance Rack of Hyde Park, who has been researching full-size trucks to replace his 1999 Ford Expedition, fits squarely in the first category. Rack's work for a plumbing supply company requires him to haul bathtubs, 10-foot pipes and other large equipment.

"Most of my driving's in the city, and I'm getting 8 miles a gallon. If I could get 20 miles a gallon carrying the same stuff, why wouldn't I?" he said.

He was intrigued by the Tahoe Hybrid when he came across the mileage figure and is now considering it for his next purchase.

"Of course, not everyone with a big truck uses it, but I'd say about 80 percent of the time I'm doing something that a Prius wouldn't fit my needs," he said.

Rack says he would look for add-ons -- factory or aftermarket -- to make a vehicle fit his needs, which also include towing a motorcycle trailer. But with a Tahoe Hybrid there would be no need, as the fully loaded SUV can haul 6,000 pounds.

In fact, that's part of the reason to believe that right now, hybrid buyers would be among the least likely to accessorize their vehicles.

Hybrid technology carries a built-in premium of several thousand dollars, so automakers usually put the powertrain in a model's top trim level, giving buyers a fully loaded vehicle for the high price. (Indeed, the Tahoe Hybrid starts just under $50,000, making it more expensive than a Lincoln Navigator.) But, Omotoso points out accessorizers might not be looking at the top trim level.

"Those type of people want to spend their money on accessories," Omotoso said. "So they'll buy a cheaper version of the vehicle and have extra money to put toward accessories."

Furthermore, excessive personalizing goes against the pragmatic nature of the hybrid, as adding too much weight will reduce mileage.

"We see hybrid truck buyers purchsing the same type of things as non-hybrid buyers, such as functional items like our cargo management system; appearance items such as grilles, chrome mirror caps, tube steps; and a hard tonneau cover, which actually helps improve aerodynamics," said Tom Henderson, spokesman for GM's Service Parts Operations division. "Those would be some things we sell a lot of on our regular pickups; we would also expect to sell them on the hybrids. And then we have a lot of electrical products. Again, these are all products that don't add much mass to a vehicle."

GM's hybrid truck offerings include the GMC Yukon and Saturn Vue. Hybrid versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are planned for 2009. Henderson said GM offers the same range of accessories for the conventional version and the hybrid.

SEMA's MacGillivray said he also has no specific knowledge of aftermarket add-ons designed for hybrids, but he suggested that fringe elements probably are working on products to further improve their mileage.

"They have not reached a level yet where they're part of our industry," he said, but "we've seen it happen over and over where new technology comes into the marketplace and people out there take it to a whole new level."

Still, SEMA sees value in the award. Truck owners buy the lion's share of aftermarket accessories, MacGillivray said, and when hybrids are common enough that factors beyond mileage enter the purchasing decision, consumers will expect the aftermarket to provide the means to their custom dreams. By recognizing models that are easily served by the aftermarket, he said, SEMA is preparing for the future.

"The change is inevitable. It's going to happen. When it's going to happen, nobody can predict," he said. "Once there is real money to be made out there, it will be interesting to see how our guys react."

Even J.D. Power's Omotoso sees that day.

Omotoso believes hybrids may account for as much as 6.5 percent of all light-vehicle sales by 2013, when as many as 80 models will be available, in all market segments and possibly all automakers selling in the U.S. In 2007 hybrids made up 2.2 percent of the market.

"In a way, the novelty value of a hybrid will wear off and people will start to take it for granted," he said, at which point buyers' priorities will migrate to the hybrid class. "You want the fuel economy of a hybrid, but you want all the creature comforts and all the other add-ons that you can afford."

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